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Rise of ‘casual racism’ in New Zealand

Friday 14 August 2015 | Published in Regional


AUCKLAND – As a young nation undergoing a rapidly changing demography, New Zealand is learning to grapple with the rise of ‘casual’ or ‘everyday’ racism, the Herald on Sunday reported recently.

Fijian rugby player Sake Aca left the field in tears after being subjected to vitriolic racist taunts – and a hunt was launched to fi nd the spectator responsible.

We would all agree that the headline-grabbing incident at a senior club rugby final in Christchurch was a slam dunk case of wholly unacceptable ugly racism.

But what about reality TV beefcake Art Green? When The Bachelor NZ star showed up at a Bollywood-themed party in blackface, a Twitter war erupted.

Many condemned his actions as racist, others said no. Party host Colin Mathura-Jeffree defended Green, saying he was dressed in theme and looked “fantastic”.

And what about Labour using real estate agency data of surnames to suggest overseas Chinese buyers are purchasing Auckland property in large numbers. Was this racism?

Again, many seemed to think so, while others believed the data was a fair way to reflect an issue of foreign ownership. We all know what blatant racist behaviour is – as highlighted by the shameful abuse directed at Fijian Aca.

But increasingly we are faced with incidents that divide opinion and prove harder to define. Academics say we are seeing the rise of a relatively new concept of “casual” or “everyday” racism.

It has been well-documented overseas but to a young country at the bottom of the world with a rapidly changing demography, it is a new challenge.

But what is “casual racism” and what are the obvious signs? Racism occurs every day in blatant and subtle forms, according to Australian academics Jacqueline Nelson from the University of Western Sydney and Jessica Walton, Research Fellow in Racism, Diversity and Intercultural Relations at Deakin University.

Everyday racism is often normalised and infused into daily life, they wrote last year on The, in an article charting the rapid rise of casual racism.

This is done through jokes and stereotypes about people’s physical features, accents and cultural practices or through unconscious body gestures and expressions such as disapproving glances and exclusionary body language, they wrote.

In the US, casual racism has been a feature in Barack Obama’s journey to becoming the country’s first black president in 2009. Critics would refer to his “lazy” behaviour – better suited to a basketball court than the corridors of power.

In 2013, Obama alluded to the reality of discrimination in contemporary America.

“There are probably very few contemporary African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars,” he said.

“There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”

And now this casual racism is manifesting itself in New Zealand in 2015 – together with the difficulty in recognising it.

Consider this example: a born-and-bred Kiwi mum of part-Malaysian descent was outside a Chinese massage centre in Auckland one morning last week waiting for it to open.

A passing white man in his 40s called out “hello” to her in Chinese and theatrically bowed his head in her direction to emphasise the greeting.

“I blurted out, ‘I am not Chinese and I don’t work at the centre’,” she told the Herald on Sunday.

“He bowed again and said, ‘Oh, so you are a local.’ He was speaking very slowly, as if English was my second language. “I thought it was ridiculous to be bowing and carrying on like that in St Lukes. I don’t believe he was intentionally trying to be insulting but it really pissed me off. It was very patronising and made me feel uncomfortable.”

But was she overreacting to what could have simply been a well-meant gesture?

Scott Poynting, Professor of Sociology at Auckland University, believes her experience is typical for people in New Zealand who might look “a bit foreign”. “New Zealanders like to think of themselves as very open and welcoming and they are both of these things,” Poynting says.

“But we are not as used to cultural diversity as many other countries that have been familiar with this for a lot longer. It can lead to people being unwittingly casual about what might be offensive to others.

“We need to understand that what we are saying or doing can be unacceptable to other people.”

Poynting cites Winston Peters as an example of how Kiwis can get it horribly wrong. The NZ First leader outraged Chinese home buyers last year by joking that “two Wongs don’t make a white”.

It was not a good look for the country, Poynting says. “The phrase wasn’t funny when it was first used by an Australian politician in 1947 and it isn’t funny now.

“The problem is that a lot of people here still think that it is okay to make jokes like that and those who are offended should simply lighten up. The inference is they should stop complaining and fi t in.

“But incidents like this and celebrities like Art Green blacking his face get picked up by media overseas,” Poynting says.

“They make New Zealanders look foolish.”

We may accept looking foolish from time to time – and, hey, who cares what the rest of the world think? But new research draws a direct link between casual racism and mental health issues.

Gail Pacheco, associate professor in economics at Auckland University of Technology, will present a talk titled Sick of Discrimination at the annual Diversity Forum in Auckland in September.

Her research shows 10 per cent of people surveyed had experienced some form of discrimination in the past year, usually associated with their ethnic group or skin colour. Even casual discrimination is considered a stressor that broadly affects health, Pacheco says.

“This association also grows in magnitude the greater the frequency of discrimination.”

Pacheco is part-Indian and part-Portuguese. She has encountered hurtful casual racism in New Zealand, despite living here for many years.

“One of my children happens to have bright orange hair and people have asked if this is my step-child,” she says.

“It is ridiculous that anyone would think it is okay to say things like that to someone in this day and age just because I have light-brown skin.”

The issue will only grow as immigrants continue to add to the melting pot. New Zealand migration rose to a new annual high in April, recording a net gain of 56,800 people.

Most newcomers came from India (12,200) followed by 7800 from China, 4600 from the UK and 4000 from the Philippines.

Experts say our strong economic outlook means the growth is unlikely to slow.

TV producers are including an element of deliberate outrage to their programming because it boosts viewing figures, says media lecturer Nabeel Zuberi.

TV producers are including an element of deliberate outrage to their programming because it boosts viewing figures, says media lecturer Nabeel Zuberi.

Yet, even our pop culture is failing to keep up with an increasingly multi-cultural society.

Too many homegrown TV shows and movies still feature mainly people of European descent in leading roles, says Dr Nabeel Zuberi, senior lecturer in fi lm, television and media at theUniversity of Auckland.

“I look out my offiicewindow and see students of all races and colours going to classes but this is not being refl ected in the local television output, particularly in reality shows,” he says.

Zuberi also believes shock presenters like Paul Henry don’t help. He famously resigned from TVNZ – after making controversial comments about the New Zealand Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand, and the Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dikshit.

“It is interesting he was brought back from Australia and given a prominent role at TV3 despite his past record,” he says. “What worries me is that producers are factoring in an element of deliberate outrage to their programming because it boosts viewing fi gures.

“This is used as a justifi cation for putting out racist messages, casual or otherwise.” The outrage factor often lands at the door of the Human Rights Commission. It has received 2095 complaints alleging unlawful discrimination in the past fi ve years.

Thirty-six per cent of these were made by people in Auckland, 11 per cent from Wellington, 9 per cent from Canterbury and 5 per cent from the Waikato.

There is nothing casual about racism. This is sometimes a misunderstood term because when you or your children are being humiliated or stereotyped it doesn’t feel casual or accidental.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy believes although these incidents are far fewer in New Zealand than other countries, there is room for improvement at every level.

“There is nothing casual about racism,” she says. “This is sometimes a misunderstood term because when you or your children are being humiliated or stereotyped it doesn’t feel casual or accidental.”

Like most experts, Devoy thinks the solution must start at a personal level and that any kind of racism should not be tolerated.

“So often we rely on courageous people who are the targets of racism to stand up and highlight what has happened to them,” she says. “But sometimes we see it for ourselves.”

Devoy says she was heading in a taxi to a mosque for the launch of Islam Awareness Week last year. Her driver was a Pakeha Kiwi and the trip was going well until he saw where she was heading. He frowned and asked why she wanted to go there, as she might be killed.

“He said it thinking he was funny but he was also serious about his dislike for Muslim people,” she says.

“I told him about the people inside who were opening their mosque to the public for the next week and I challenged him to go along as ‘you never know you might learn something’.

“He laughed and eventually said actually he might just do that. As I got out he realised there were a lot of taxis already parked outside and he knew many of their drivers, his Muslim workmates who came over to say ‘hi’ to him.”

Devoy adds despite the shortcomings in attitudes towards casual racism, New Zealanders are essentially good people who believe in giving others a fair go.

“We just need to challenge one another. The streets of our towns and suburbs are where race relations will thrive or die. It is really up to us.”